Herbert Dickey in the Devil’s Paradise

Herbert Dickey in the Devil’s Paradise:

If Dickey did say something like this to Casement, however, his subsequent actions belied his fatalism. After Casement gave up his manhunt and returned to London, Dickey was at loose ends in the river metropolis of Manaos when he encountered none other than Julio Cesar Arana, president of the Peruvian Amazon Company. Arana, who knew exactly what Dickey had been doing, turned on all his considerable charm, promised great reforms and offered a tremendous raise if Dickey would return to Putumayo. The clincher was the news that the district would now be run by Juan Tizon, who had cooperated with Casement and whom Dickey respected.

Dickey accepted and returned to the Putumayo district capital La Chorrera. For the first few months after his return, conditions did improve sharply. But Tizon’s health failed. His replacement reverted to the worst of the old brutality. Dickey was trapped again, but with his eyes wide open.

“Had I suggested that I wanted to leave,” he wrote, “there was no doubt in my mind that I would have been killed.” The going rate for such an assassination, he said, was a tin of sardines. So he began to make plans for his “getaway.” An old Weetoto friend named Keysha, who lived an hour’s walk away, agreed to keep a small canoe hidden for him. On regular hikes to the hut, Dickey smuggled provisions for his trip. But plans came to a head when the next arrival of the company steamer brought a calamitous package.

Before Casement had parted company, he had suggested that Dickey write a book about the Putumayo, which Casement would have published in London. Dickey had sent him several explosive chapters, before his encounter with Arana. After rejoining the company’s employ, Dickey sent urgent word to Casement to withhold publication. But here, in the packet of letters on the company steamer, was a copy of the London Daily Mail, Overseas Edition, with Dickey’s writings spread across the front page.

Dickey learned he still had the only copy in the district, but he planned to leave that night. He sent his houseboy ahead with a coded message for Keysha, and waited for a reply. And waited. He finally set out, with his heart racing. He passed the clearing with the stocks, and saw that his houseboy was a prisoner. He feared a trap. “Never in my life have I been more frightened,” he said, “and I left the boy there.” He hurried in the nightfall to Keysha’s hut.

No answer came when he softly called for his friend. He lighted a lantern to look around the room. “My hand, as it held the lantern, shook violently with fear, and the shadows in the silent hut quavered as if in sympathy, for there, staring me hideously in the face – silent – motionless – ghastly – was Keysha’s dead body hanging from the rafters.”

Dicky turned to run, but stopped short at the sound of a smothered wail. Keysha’s grandson was lying in the dust. He had been taken in months before when his own parents had been murdered. Now, said Dickey, “whoever had hung Keysha had apparently merely kicked the baby into the corner.” Dickey retrieved the baby, trying to stifle its cries, and found his hidden canoe. Keysha had kept that secret to the last.

Dickey paddled with his passenger for 11 nights, hiding by day, until he reached the Brazilian Customs Port at the mouth of the Putumayo. A succession of steamers took him down the Amazon, and he quit South America altogether for Barbados. There he found a place for Keysha’s grandson, who grew up to become a customs officer for the British West Indies. Casement turned to Irish nationalism and was executed in 1916 for his role in the Easter Rising. After making a fortune with the Peruvian Amazon Company, Julio Cesar Arana was elected Senator in Peru.

Dickey eventually retired from medicine, became a full-time explorer and ethnographer, and launched a number of expeditions that avoided adventures whenever possible.

James Ring Adams is Senior Historian at the National Museum of the American Indian – Smithsonian and managing editor of American Indian magazine.